Near the end of Monday night’s 29th Ward aldermanic candidate forum, audience member Nicole Harvey stood up and loudly voiced a sentiment her and a few others had been murmuring throughout the night in the back of the room: You shouldn’t need the title of alderman to work for your community. Harvey said she worried the candidates at the forum were waiting for their election to start making a difference.
“You don’t have to be an alderman or an elected official to be a community activist and do anything that’s necessary. You don’t have to have a title or get a paycheck to care about the community where you live,” Harvey said. “It’s not about the title you carry, it’s about what have you done, and when you get there, what can you do?”
In a night that featured almost as many speeches from the audience as from the candidates, Carter’s oration exemplified the mood of the evening: a spirited cynicism about the candidates, and an adamant dedication to Austin.
“It was good, people want to be heard, ” candidate Jill Bush said of the forum. “We were able to entertain and answer the questions of the concerned citizens in the area.”
Bush was one of three candidates who fielded questions from a group of about 25 in Ron’s Barber Shop, 6058 North Ave., as well as from moderator Elce Redmond. The shop’s owner, Ron Gibson, hosted and organized the forum, and he said he had invited the five candidates he believes are the best, Bush, Mary Russell Gardner, Ald. Deborah Graham, Oddis “O.J.” Johnson and Thomas E. Simmons. Johnson and Simmons were unable to attend.
“I invited who I thought were the best of the best. I thought they gave their comments very boldly, they’re not shy at all, they said what they had to say,” Gibson said.
Redmond began the night with a question to the candidates about the high number of foreclosures in the 29th ward, and the three established right away their pattern for the evening. Gardner drew upon personal, non-political, experience and was directly critical of Graham, while Graham spoke of work she had done as a state legislator and as alderman. As she would all night, Bush said the least and stressed the need to better educate Austin residents so that they could protect themselves.
Graham promised an opportunity for restitution to those who had been foreclosed upon in the form of lawsuits filed against predatory lenders by the Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and said that while in Springfield she had held a “foreclosure summit” to help homeowners understand their mortgages and avoid foreclosure.
To Gardner, that was not enough.
“That all sounds really good, but I’m sitting here as a witness, that I was in trouble, probably about five years ago, and a friend recommended me to Neighborhood Housing Services, and they told me, your area has been subjected to predatory lending,” said Gardner. ” I had an adjustable rate mortgage, I worked every day…I could pay my mortgage, but it just kept going up. Every year it was going up. So, those programs are great, but when you are in trouble…you need immediate results, a lawsuit is not going to help you, because by that time you’ve lost your house.”
Throughout the night Graham went back again and again to her record as a legislator, drawing a clear distinction between herself and Gardner and Bush, who do not have experience as elected officials. Gardner took several thinly-veiled shots at Graham and her office, constantly toeing the line of civility set by Dixon and Redmond, while Bush mostly stayed out of the fray, and at times struggled to be heard from her seat farthest from the audience.
Graham was appointed to her position as the current 29th ward alderman last March by Mayor Daley after Ald. Isaac “Ike” Carothers plead guilty to charges of accepting bribes, so it was a question about political corruption that stirred the most heated debate among the candidates and received the loudest response from the audience.
“I’m looking at the corruption from the alderman that just went to jail, all the way up to the governor and back down. Illinois is laughed at when it comes to corruption,” Otis Barry, 37, said to a smattering of applause. “I volunteer at the boys and girls club, and the reason [the younger people there] say they don’t vote is because there is no such thing as an honest politician…the reason why we don’t have young black voters is because they see the corruption, they see the dishonesty, they see the disloyalty and they just don’t want to be a part of it… So, I guess what I’m asking is, where is the honesty?”
Gardner responded first to Barry, calling him a “hard act to follow,” and suggested that if voters wanted to figure out who the honest candidates were, they should look closely at the contributors to the candidates’ campaigns, an obvious reference to Graham as both Bush and Gardner are mostly self funded.
“Follow the money trail,” Gardner said. “Special interest groups will support people that carry their agenda, and I suggest to you, follow the money on anybody that’s running in this ward, and you will see where the unions are, you will see where the business community is, you will see who is funding the person that’s going to carry their agenda, not yours.
Graham, a former political ally of Carothers’, avoided addressing political corruption specifically, saying that everyone, from journalists to ministers make mistakes.
“We’re (politicians) the people that’s easiest to blame, but every man must be held responsible for what he does,” Graham said. “We’re not perfect, we all have sinned and fallen short.”
Foreclosure, education and violence prevention dominated the evening.
Bush said that as a board member of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association, she works first hand at trying to make the 29th Ward safer.
“The police response time is very low, and I am working to hold the police responsible for what’s going on in our community,” Bush said. “What I plan to do when I do become alderman is make sure the police our policing our community and also to engage the residents because we cannot always depend on the police, we have to take our community back, block by block.”
All three of the candidates agreed that crime prevention had to start with community involvement, Gardner lamented that at her last CAPS meeting, only four people were in attendance.
Graham said that as Alderman she has been working to involve the community in crime prevention as well as specifically addressing the problem with police response time.
“We put the superintendent and commanders on notice, demanding that we get a quality performance from them in addressing our concerns,” Graham said.
Attendee Nick Price said he came away unimpressed with the candidates, but said that wasn’t entirely their fault.
“They’re talking about social issues,” he said. “But that’s really the responsibility of the community.”